Traditional versus alternative: in which school are kids more engaged? (study)

If you’ve read the title, you probably guessed the answer would be alternative school, I admit, I thought it myself when I started reading this new research by de Bilde et al (2013).  The researchers conducted a longitudinal study on data gathered on 2,776 children (1,397 boys), 2,513 children from traditional schools (90.5%), 222 children from 19 Freinet schools (8%), and 41 children from 4 Waldorf schools (1.5%), Freinet & Waldorf being the alternative schools being explored, although the researchers do mention that differences in actual approach can be less big than one might think. Bear in mind this research has some important limitations as its nature correlational, the researchers also exlcuded quite a lot of respondents from the original data of 6000, by eliminating all children changing schools and all grade retainers.

What did the researchers find:

“After controlling for pupil background variables, there was no significant difference in school enjoyment between children in alternative and traditional schools, but children from alternative kindergartens were rated lower in terms of independent participation than their peers in traditional schools.”

“…This means that children from alternative schools are rated lower in terms of independent participation in kindergarten, but that the evolution in independent participation does not differ from the evolution of children in traditional schools.”

But this they found looking at the gross differences, what if they take the children characteristics into account?

“While no overall gross differences were found between alternative and traditional schools, when comparing them after taking into account the differences in pupil population, children in alternative schools were rated by their teachers as acting less independent than their peers in traditional schools. This could indicate that alternative schools generally have a negative impact on children’s independent participation. Surprisingly, these differences were already observed at the beginning of the study (in the 3rd year of kindergarten). This can mean two things. First, these results can indicate that the school effects might already have taken place in the 1st and 2nd year of kindergarten. Second, these results might be caused by initial differences in children’s level of independence prior to entering education. This would mean that children who have a tendency to act dependent towards others might have a bigger propensity to enter an alternative school.”

As you can see in this fragment in this research teachers rated the dependent variables, thus providing no clear conclusions about the real effects of alternative education, as the researchers note:

“It is quite possible that teachers who use an alternative pedagogical approach and put more emphasis on children’s school enjoyment and independent participation may rate their children’s noncognitive functioning in a different way from teachers who operate in a more traditional fashion.”

Still the conclusion remains:

“The premise of the present study, that alternative education is beneficial for children’s school enjoyment and independent participation, could not be supported. In contrast, evidence was found that alternative education might impact negatively children’s independent participation in the class. It was found that in alternative education, after control for differences in student background characteristics, children acted less independent compared to children in traditional schools. However, there is some evidence that in alternative schools the gap between high and low initial achievers with regard to school enjoyment and independence is smaller than in traditional schools.”

Abstract of the research:

The current study examines the impact of alternative education on children’s early school engagement in terms of school enjoyment and independent participation. A sample of 2,776 children from traditional (e.g., mainstream) and alternative (Freinet and Waldorf) Flemish schools was followed from their 3rd year of kindergarten until 3rd grade. The present study does not evidence a positive effect of alternative education on school engagement. In contrast, it was found that in alternative education children acted less independent compared to traditional schools. Furthermore, differential effects in terms of children’s socioeconomic status and initial language achievement are explored. In alternative schools, children’s initial level of language achievement tends to be less determinative for their school engagement compared to traditional schools.

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